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Gun Violence in Hollywood Movies

By Christopher E. Scott
The official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study in 2013. The abstract of this report stated that the mere presence of guns in top-selling motion pictures is enough to create aggression in people. They have dubbed this psychological phenomenon as “The Weapons Effect”.
To conduct their study, trained coders identified the presence of violence in half of the 30 top-grossing films since 1950. They studied the presence of guns in violent segments since 1985, the first full year that theaters introduced the PG-13 rating. PG-13 rated films are significant because they are among the top-grossing films. These films are also especially attractive to young people.
Researchers concluded that violence in films has doubled since 1950. Gun violence in films has tripled since the introduction of the PG-13 rating in 1985. They also discovered that when the PG-13 rating was first introduced, films had about as much gun violence as rated G or PG films. Nowadays, PG-13 rated films have as much gun violence as rated R films. Even if people refrain from using guns, the study believes that by including guns in films, filmmakers are increasing the “weapons effect”, increasing people’s aggression, and “providing people with scripts for using guns”.
The Matrix
The authors of the paper recommend considering the human condition as a succession of problems that humans need to solve. They theorize that humans learn how to solve these problems by emulating how others overcome similar challenges. By observing others, people accumulate a set of programs, called “scripts”, for solving social problems. In cinema, scripts cue the actors on what to say and how to behave. In memory, people use scripts in everyday life to guide behavior by defining which situation goes with which behavior. The person attaches a script to a situation, assumes a role in that script, and behaves by that script. A person will learn a script through direct experience. Yet, dramatic films have a more lasting impact on a person’s psyche. They last longer in a person’s memory. It is more likely that they learn it by observing others, especially violent characters in films. Contemporary cinema provides a script for gun use. It associates the settling of problems with using a gun. The study goes on to note that despite the call from members of the public to curb gun violence, what is absent from these discussions is the fact that seeing a gun is enough to increase someone’s aggression.
Many attempts to prove the “weapons effect” hypothesis have been undertaken. One of the first attempts occurred in 1967 at the University of Wisconsin. Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage did a study that led to the publication of their paper entitled “Weapons as Aggressions-Eliciting Stimuli” in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In this study, they recruited 100 male university students. Some of the students sat at a table with a shotgun and a revolver on it. Others sat with a badminton racquet and shuttlecocks. A third control group sat at a table with nothing on it at all. The professors lied to the participants. They said that a previous study group had forgotten to remove the objects from the table. The experimenters told the participants to ignore the items. This request was impossible for the participants to follow. When the study required the participants to deliver electric shocks to an accomplice of the experimenter, deciding how much electricity they wanted to administer, the presence of the guns on the table became a deciding factor in how aggressive the participants were when administering the electric shocks. Participants who saw the guns on the table were more aggressive than the people who saw the sports equipment or no items at all.

It is important to note that more than 50 other studies have replicated the “weapons effect” with mixed results. In 1975, for example, Ann Frodi conducted the study with 100 high school students in Sweden. Although she found that the people who saw the guns were more aggressive, it appears that people in Sweden might have a different set of mental associations with the image of guns than do the American test subjects. In another study, researchers found that participants didn’t even have to see the guns to become more aggressive. Participants who read the words describing “guns” for only 0.17 seconds became more aggressive than people who read words such as “water. This leads many experts to believe that there are other mitigating factors which undergird the “weapons effect”, thus requiring even more rigorous study before drawing any definitive conclusions. These studies suggest that there may be a strong correlation between aggression and memory.

It appears that almost every scientific and health organization has come to similar conclusions on the subject of the correlation between gun violence in films and aggression. After reviewing the evidence which has accumulated as the result of decades of research, six public health organizations (the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association) issued a joint statement that stated:
“The conclusion of the public health community, based on over
30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children.”
Many government organizations in the U.S. have also issued corroborating statements, including the US Surgeon General, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The before mentioned 2013 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics tested a potential source of the “weapons effect”- the pervasive presence of firearms in top-selling motion pictures. Since the mere presence of weapons is enough to increase aggression, and violent media can increase aggression in a way that has long-lasting effects on a person’s memory, gun violence in films might have double the psychological impact in comparison to other art forms. Their research concludes that seeing guns in films might be providing people with scripts on when it is appropriate to use guns. The researchers were particularly interested in the use of guns in violent scenes depicted in PG-13 films. This is significant because PG-13 films appeal to youth, violence is a recurring theme in many of the top-grossing PG-13 films, the amount of violence in these films has increased, and that people have more access to violent films than they had before as a result of internet streaming.
The Dark Knight
The 2013 study used the “Coding of Health and Media Projects” database of 945 titles that it sampled from the 30 top grossing films from 1950 to 2012. They based their rankings on annual box office sales that Variety magazine reported. They then hired trained coders to identify all the violent scenes in each film and divide these films into 5-minute sequences. These coders achieved a 0.80 level of reliability for these sequences. They used the Krippendorff reliability formula for controlling chance agreements between many coders.
Out of the 945 films that researches coded from 1950 until 2012, there were 17, 695 violent sequences. Their violence coding revealed that 94% of the films made since 1985 had segments containing violence. They coded these segments for the use of guns. The study blinded the coders from knowing the film’s publication year and the Motion Picture Association of America rating. They achieved a 0.91 level on the Krippendorff reliability scale for the identification of gun violence. Researchers then obtained the rate of gun violence per hour for each film. They transformed that number via a log transformation. They then averaged it for each year, examining the rate of gun violence by film rating. As a result, they discovered that the trend in the rate of violent sequences more than doubled from 1950 to 2012. They also discovered that since 2009 the rate of gun violence in PG-13 films has been as high or higher than R-rated films. They also discovered that in 2012 the level of gun violence in PG-13 films exceeded the mean in R-rated films.
Previous research has shown the correlation between increased smoking by people exposed to movie characters who smoke. The same effects were true when researchers exposed viewers to characters who drink. The researchers predicted that viewers will become more interested in acquiring and using guns after witnessing gun violence in a film.
Suicide Squad
Detractors tend to ask the same question: “If movies cause people to be violent, then why are there fewer shootings in Canada and Europe? Don’t they watch American movies as well?” These counterexamples might have very logical explanations. One of the authors of the 2013 study, Dan Romer, a psychologist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, explains why there are fewer mass shootings in Europe. In an interview with Deadline magazine in 2013, Professor Romer said the following: “We have a huge number of guns in America that are stored in homes where kids can get access to them. In Europe and elsewhere it’s less of a problem because there is not as much access to firearms.” His explanation seems to coincide with the finding of the Swedish version of the “weapons effect” experiment by Ann Frodi in 1975.
“We have a huge number of guns in America that are stored in homes where kids can get access to them. In Europe and elsewhere it’s less of a problem because there is not as much access to firearms.”
When it comes to the subject of guns and the American motion picture industry, one can make a convincing argument that there is some degree of moral culpability in the increasing fetishization of firearms in the United States.

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